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Five Years After Medical Cannabis Was Legalised, Almost a Third of Police Officers Still Don’t Know and Patients Get ‘Penalised For Our Prescriptions’

Medical cannabis has been legal on prescription in the UK since November 2018, and an estimated 30,000 people use it, yet patients are being ‘discriminated’ against and even arrested and charged

Police in London in September 2022. Photo: Simon Dack News / Alamy
Medical cannabis patients have spoken about being pulled over and charged by police for possessing their medication. Photo: Simon Dack News/Alamy

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Nathan Williams is on edge every time he drives. He is prescribed medical cannabis for chronic pain but has been arrested twice in the past 18 months.

Mr Williams of Newton, Wales, was first pulled over by Dyfed Powys police while on a driving lesson with a friend last February. Despite showing them a copy of his prescription through a private UK clinic, he says officers “didn’t even want to look at the paperwork”.

Nathan Williams has a prescription for medical cannabis but has been arrested twice in the past 18 months. Photo: Nathan Williams

Knowing that THC – a cannabinoid found in cannabis – can be detected in the blood for up to 30 days, Mr Williams refused a roadside drug test on the basis that his medication was legally prescribed and he wasn’t under the influence at the time.

“Officers tried to intimidate me,” Mr Williams, who was arrested for failing to provide a specimen and taken to a police station miles from his home, claims – adding that officers said he was going to “lose my licence either way”.

The case was dismissed. But months later, the 25-year-old was stopped and arrested by the same officer again. The case went nowhere for a second time.

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Regardless of these outcomes, the experience has taken its toll.

Mr Williams says he is now “anxious” about driving anywhere. The “intimidation” of being pulled over has had a “massive impact” on his mental health.

“Getting medical cannabis on prescription was supposed to make things easier,” he adds.

A spokesperson for Dyfed Powys Police did not comment on Mr Williams’ case to Byline Times but said that, when officers have concerns over “the quality of an individual’s driving, they can request a sample to determine if that person is driving while under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol”, and that failure to comply with the request is a criminal offence.


‘When Things Go Wrong, They Go Dramatically Wrong’

Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in November 2018 and it is estimated that more than 30,000 people are now prescribed it. But experiences like Mr Williams’ aren’t unique.

Drugs and drugs law charity, Release, has received multiple reports from people who have been detained or had their medication seized, despite showing police their prescriptions. 

In April, Release launched the #ReleaseMyMeds campaign due to an “increase in reports of patients having negative encounters with the police due to their possession of prescribed cannabis medication”.

It hopes to collect reports of “negative experiences” to help illustrate the problem, as well as supporting people through the legal process and to bring about possible “legal claims”.

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Stephen Cutter, head of legal services at Release, told Byline Times that the campaign is about making sure people “have access to the justice they have been denied in the first place”.

In the past five years, Cutter said, when “things go wrong (with the police), it goes dramatically wrong, leaving people without access to their medications”.

This occurs, he said, when police carry out stop and search, or when people are pulled over when driving: “These are very stressful things to go through, particularly when you know you’re using your medication in a completely responsible way.”


Patients Treated Like ‘Criminals’

Medical cannabis is largely administered as either flower or oil and used to treat a wide range of conditions from anxiety, autism and ADHD, to chronic pain and epilepsy. 

A lack of public awareness, combined with the fact it is largely only available privately – fewer than five NHS prescriptions for unlicensed medical cannabis products have been issued to date – means that patients are often treated differently.

The experience can vary, depending on where they live, which police force they fall under, and even which officer they deal with.

“Lack of education and training is a key element to the discrimination and unfair treatment faced by patients”, says Guy Coxall, an advocate and member of the Cannabis Industry Council, who has supported a number of people with court cases, including Mr Williams.

While some forces are implementing training, “via pressure from the industry”, Mr Coxall said “most forces “remain ignorant of the law and continue to treat patients like criminals”.

The issue is “further exacerbated” in the courts, he added, where the “prosecution and even judges are ignorant of the laws and so patients are dragged through the courts, sometimes for years”.

A study published in the Medico-Legal Journal this month, based on a survey of 200 police officers, found that almost a third, 28.5%, did not know that medical cannabis was legal under prescription. More than 88% believed that they would benefit from more training on the substance and how to identify legal medical cannabis patients.

Last November, the Guardian received 24 responses to a call-out from people who had experienced negative interactions with police related to their cannabis prescription. The newspaper highlighted the case of a patient’s home being raided and how Sussex Police’s professional standards department then rejected a complaint, stating that officers “cannot be expected to know about every aspect of every law that affects UK citizens”.

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While those with legal prescriptions for cannabis are raising concerns, those selling the Class B drug are becoming increasingly bold, with it even being advertised for sale on the London Underground.

Since 2015, Durham Police has stopped targeting cannabis users and small-scale growers in a move that, at the time, was interpreted as a shift towards the effective decriminalisation of cannabis. In May 2022, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced he was setting up a new body to look at legalising cannabis.

Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice show that prosecutions for possession of cannabis have generally decreased since 2010, although these numbers do not include out-of-court disposals. Cannabis possession offences still make up approximately one third of all drug offences prosecuted every year.

Cannabis remains the most commonly used illicit drug, with 7.4% of adults between 16 and 59 years old reporting having used it within the past year, according to a 2022 report by the Office for National Statistics.


‘Stigma and Misinformation’

The problems don’t end with police. Medical cannabis patients have also had issues with medical authorities.

When Skye Moore attended A&E at Royal Sussex County Hospital last October, a nurse told her she couldn’t administer her medication anywhere on the premises, even outside of the building, as it was a “gateway drug”. 

Skye Moore was told she could not vape her medical cannabis anywhere on the premises of an A&E. Photo: Skye Moore

The 53-year-old complained and was told in a written response – seen by Byline Times – that there was no “dedicated space” at the hospital site for patients to vape medicinal cannabis, but this was being considered as part of the trust’s “wider smoke-free policy”.

Royal Sussex NHS Foundation Trust added to Byline Times that all drugs are managed “in line with legal frameworks” which are set by the Government. 

Concerned that the complaint was being dealt with as part of the trust’s smoking policy, rather than as a prescribed medication, Sal Aziz, head of governance at the non-profit patient advocacy group PatientsCann, requested a public board meeting.

The trust’s chief medical officer, Professor Catherine Urch, told a hearing in February this year that “there is, as yet, no vape-able form of medicinal cannabis” and if there was, it would have to be administered in a “properly ventilated room” as with other drugs.

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Aziz highlighted how patients have been permitted to administer their medication on site and inside hospital buildings at other NHS trusts throughout the UK. 

“It’s maddening, the amount of stigma and misinformation,” Skye Moore, who has a number of long-term health conditions which mean she is intolerant to opioid medications, told Byline Times, adding: “I feel completely discriminated against.”


Evicted For Taking Medication

Daniel Wilson, from Norwich, told Byline Times that he was evicted in 2022 after his private landlord discovered he was taking his medication in the property. 

Now on the housing register, the 46-year-old says he was told by his local council that he would be in breach of his tenancy agreement if he were to medicate indoors in one of their properties. 

“Multiple times I have contemplated giving up my prescription,” he told this newspaper. “The idea that it’s up to a landlord if I can medicate or not is ridiculous.”

Norwich City Council did not wish to comment on the case. 


Patients Paying the Price for ‘Vague Policies’ 

Jason Reed, co-executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) UK, and a medical cannabis patient himself, has called for the Government needs to intervene.

“You cannot really blame police officers for not knowing the full extent of these new laws as the guidance from the Home Office has been negligible,” he told Byline Times. “Vulnerable patients are paying the price for vague policy-making.”

Jason Reed, co-executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) UK. Photo: LEAP

“There’s also no getting away from the fact that the legacy of the last 50 years of punitive drug laws cannot be washed away with half-measure reforms. Patients will only be protected and safe when we have a full and honest drug policy and criminalisation is firmly addressed.”

The National Police Chiefs Council has said that, while the possession of cannabis products for medicinal reasons is legal under prescription, the laws around driving under the influence of drink or drugs means an officer is “within their rights” to stop someone they “suspected of having a level of drugs in their body that was impeding their driving”.

There is currently no law which protects medical cannabis patients from arrest if THC is detected in their blood while driving, even if there is no evidence of impairment —although they may have a statutory medical defence in court. 

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DVLA guidance requires patients to be “free from any medication effects that would impair driving”, but it is down to the individual to judge whether their ability to drive safely is impaired. Studies cited in reports published by the Department for Transport have shown that impairment associated with use of medical cannabis containing THC is generally four hours or less. 

The Home Office says that it takes a “zero tolerance approach to all drug misuse”, but it is up to police to enforce road traffic legislation using their “professional judgement”, with chief police officers deciding how to deploy available resources.

A Government spokesperson said: “Patients can access cannabis-based products for medicinal use but must have evidence of a valid prescription to show to police, proving they are entitled to the product.

“Enforcement is an operational matter for the police but where satisfactory evidence is not provided individuals risk arrest and being charged with an offence.”


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